Behind The Lens: Afghan Girl (Sharbat Gula)


Behind the Lens

A brief escape from oppression

We take a look at how the alluring green eyes of the Afghan Girl have enthralled countless generations of readers since she appeared on the covers of the National Geographic magazine back in the 80s.

The infamous eyes of the Afghan Girl (Sharbat Gula),  photo from CNN

The infamous eyes of the Afghan Girl (Sharbat Gula), photo from CNN

Afghanistan consistently ranks as one of the world’s least desirable destinations due to its reputation being synonymous with war and conflict. With such a risk posed to travellers, our opinions and perspectives on the country seem to be (and for good reasons) firmly in the hands of photographers. 

In the National Geographic Magazine’s immense collection, there is no doubt that its most iconic photo is titled the ‘Afghan Girl’. Upon its release, the photo captivated the West - it depicted an unnamed young girl from a nondescript refugee camp along the Pakistan-Afghan border with a facial expression that perfectly encapsulated the ravages of war consuming her country. Since then, the portraiture has assumed a legendary reputation, and has even been likened to works like the Mona Lisa.

The circumstances that led Steven McCurry to capture ‘the Third World’s Mona Lisa’ were purely coincidental. It was only by chance that McCurry, who was already on the way home, spontaneously decided to pass through one of the makeshift schools inside a refugee camp. 

After glancing into a classroom, McCurry spotted the ‘Afghan Girl’ (whom we now know as Sharbat Gula) and her unique green eyes. In that moment, McCurry said that he had found his magnum opus. 

At first, the small girl was reluctant to allow a stranger take such an intimate photo of her, and indeed was herself not even acquainted with how a camera worked. Yet, at the behest of her teacher, she acquiesced to the notion that McCurry, through his photos, could help to alleviate the plight of the Afghan people by drawing international attention to the conflict gripping her country.

For McCurry, he knew exactly that in that brief moment of having Sharbat as his subject, the stars aligned. Not only did the background of the photo create a stunning contrast to Sharbat’s red headscarf, it was also acting in concert with her beautiful green eyes. With the lighting of that classroom in 1985 perfectly illuminating the entire shot, all McCurry had to do was to 'sit there and point my lens at her’. 

Sadly, while the Soviet war in Afghanistan drew to a precipitous close in 1989, the country continued to be embroiled in factionalism and civil war with the rise of the Taliban. As such, Afghan Girl lives on in a land wracked by almost continuous conflict where old habits die hard. 

A photo of what the Afghan Girl looks like now - Sharbat Gula and her family,  photo from National Geographic

A photo of what the Afghan Girl looks like now - Sharbat Gula and her family, photo from National Geographic

After McCurry left Afghanistan and subsequently published the 'Afghan Girl' within those famous yellow borders, little was heard about Sharbat. She faded into obscurity and any effort to located her seemed to be a lost cause until McCurry was able to locate Sharbat after an expedition in 2002. 

As if to fulfil the notion that Sharbat perfectly mirrors her country’s plight in the ‘Afghan Girl’, McCurry found an older Sharbat living on life’s edge; the hardship that was etched across the face in 1984 deepening to form scars and weathered skin. However, the Afghan Girl of the day still had those green eyes remained as unyielding and as piercing as before. McCurry’s description her in 2002 is haunting: ’(She was) as striking as the young girl I photographed 17 years ago’.

By the time of the reunion, Sharbat’s memory of McCurry had already faded, and in the interim, she never knew about the iconic photograph or the extent of its prominence.

Despite poverty, Sharbat’s religious priorities take precedence. Her request to McCurry during a visit in 2002 didn't ask for renumeration for using her portrait but was simply to help her to go on the Hajj, a rite of passage for every muslim. Her immediate concerns were also pragmatic, and were squared on the future of her children as after all, Afghanistan's literacy rate in 2015 stands at an abysmal 38.2%.

It is possible that understanding this pervasive and overriding deference to religion could lie at the heart of an eventual solution to Afghanistan’s conflicts. After all, conflict in the modern era often arises because one side is unable to comprehend (and sometimes permit) the centrality of religion to override economic imperatives. 

There is no simple solution to Afghanistan’s enduring conflict especially when both diplomacy and foreign intervention have failed. Though things are much more calm now, it remains to be seen whether this brief respite will portend an era of peace and stability for the country. In the meantime, it is heartening to note that Sharbat’s hardship seems to have been assuaged by the current Afghan government as they have pledged to support and house her in the country’s capital.

While we are not saying that Sharbat’s life amounts only to a teleology of characterising Afghanistan’s woes, it should be known that her story is perhaps a good and sound warning to those who seem to think that conflict is an appropriate way to solve differences. 

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